New wave art: Britain's coast revitalised

If you go down to the sea today you're in for a big surprise, as artists like Gavin Turk and Tracey Emin mix with the sand and arcades
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It is already being described as the call of the coast. Britain's seaside towns are increasingly shedding their kiss-me-quick, slot-machine image, with visitors now as likely to encounter a piece of contemporary art by the likes of Sir Peter Blake or Gavin Turk as they are a Donald McGill postcard.

In a 21st-century inversion, while McGill's postcards have enjoyed a showing at Tate Modern in London, works normally associated with museums are scattered along promenades, piers and beaches.

With the fifth Whitstable Biennale in full swing this weekend, various venues in the Kent town – famous for its oysters – will host an extra 25,000 visitors who are expected to spend about £700,000.

And just down the Kent coast, Margate is building a museum to house works by J M W Turner – one of the greatest British artists – which is due to open next year, backed by the artist Tracey Emin, who grew up in the town.

Next month, the coastal towns that make up the Haven Ports in Suffolk and Essex will host an art exhibition curated by the former YBA Gavin Turk, with the sites linked by a bicycle ride. And in Bexhill, on the south coast, the renowned Art Deco De La Warr Pavilion has been refurbished at a cost of £8m and turned into an art gallery, while visitors to the Lancashire resort of Blackpool will find a Sir Peter Blake sculpture on the promenade.

There are also art events in Hastings, Folkestone – which has its own Triennial – Leigh-on-Sea, Cromer and Eastbourne – not to mention the Tate museum in St Ives.

Patrick Brown, of the Coastal Communities Alliance, a regeneration body for seaside towns, said that the seaside was a natural home for art, which is key to reviving the flagging fortunes of Britain's coast.

"The seaside hasn't really benefited from 20 years of economic growth," he said. "They have to maximise the reason they exist, which is to create happiness and pleasure. That isn't tangible in terms of money. But art not only attracts visitors – as well as a different string of visitor – it redefines the seaside and boosts local morale."

Gavin Turk added that his project had involved the local community in Jaywick, Essex. "At a point after the war lots of people who had beach huts at Jaywick stayed there," he said. "So suddenly you have this whole community who live in these tiny houses on the beach front. Then the whole economy went and there was no work and in the end you have this deprived community living in beach huts – tiny little houses. But they have a really strong sense of community. For the art project all the people in the community came right into the project and wanted to know what was going on. It's a fascinating place."

Earlier this year, Tracey Emin installed a neon art work on the front of the customs house in Margate as part of the Turner Contemporary project. A new gallery is being built to house works by J M W Turner, who painted many works from the Kent resort.

"Wherever art goes regeneration follows," Emin said. "Art always gets there first. Liverpool is a really good example of that. The Turner Centre is the only thing that Margate has had for years. I think there should be an inquiry into why and how Margate was allowed to decline."